Clinton prepares to seize back the initiative

BILL CLINTON tomorrow delivers his second State of the Union message, aimed at regaining the initiative on important legislative proposals on crime, welfare and, above all, health care reform. But this annual great set piece of US politics will have a second purpose - to project this gifted but accident- prone President as a leader upon whom Americans can rely.

Mr Clinton is more than a year into his term, but views of him oscillate as wildly as ever. One moment he dazzles by his youth, drive and grasp of issues. The next he seems a shifty amateur, unable to run a government and whose personal integrity is daily called into question. Here at least, the second impression is in the ascendant. That Mr Clinton will be seeking to change with his address to both Houses of Congress.

Its prime focus, aides say, will be on health care, where a host of competing proposals, Republican and Democratic alike, make it steadily less likely that the original White House proposals, comprising universal coverage and greater government controls, will make it to the statute book before Congress breaks up for elections in the autumn.

Complicating matters are demands from his own party to give higher priority to welfare reform. 'I do not think there is a health-care crisis,' claimed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, whose support is essential if the White House is to have its way on health care.

A fortnight before Christmas, flushed with success over Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and basking in praise for what seemed a deft replacement of the Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, Mr Clinton would have had his way. But Arkansas has returned to haunt him, while his Pentagon nominee, Bobby Ray Inman, has self-destructed.

Thus far, the renewed doubts do not extend far beyond the febrile Washington opinion factory. Mr Clinton's national approval rating is comfortably over 50 per cent - as good as most of his predecessors at a similar point - despite the Inman embarrassment adding to the continuing fuss over his business dealings and alleged philanderings when he was governor of Arkansas.

This weekend brought fresh stirrings on the latter front, as a former Miss Arkansas claimed she had been heavily pressured during the 1992 campaign to hold her tongue over an affair with then-Governor Clinton nine years before. Senior Republicans meanwhile are still pressing for a Select Committee to investigate Whitewater, despite last week's appointment of a special counsel. A congressional inquiry would generate little extra light, but much more heat, for Mr Clinton.

The explanation for the relative confidence of ordinary Americans is the economy. Every statistic points, almost miraculously, to solid growth and little inflation. Mr Clinton used his weekly radio address on Saturday to announce a likely 1995 budget deficit of less than dollars 180bn ( pounds 120bn), compared to the dollars 300bn anticipated before the deficit-cutting package approved by Congress last summer. That figure is another sign interest rates will not rise, and imperil the recovery.

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